A couple of days ago, I was ensconced in my home in the Chicago suburbs, where overnight the temperature with windchill dropped to nearly -50℉ (-45℃). I am extremely blessed, because my home was warm. Power stayed on. No pipes froze. I had plenty of food to eat. The internet was out, but I have a smartphone (and a tablet!), so was easily able to stay “connected.”
With this abundance of resources, and essentially a forced “retreat” in my home, I should have been efficiently working away, knocking things off my “To Do” list. Instead, I was hanging out on social media, sharing information and photos of this unusual weather event and how it had impacted me. Commiserating with others in similar straits.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the importance of trying to understand our students’ out-of-school environments. If I, a mature adult with plenty of resources, had a hard time focusing during an unusual and uncomfortable event, I wonder what it is like for a child who is often hungry? Or who lives in fear of harm from a caregiver? Or who is required to “look out” for another family member? Or who has no heat in their home? The list of “or who” could go on for some time.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, generally accepted as a sound model, states that one can only achieve the next tier of the hierarchy once all the needs in lower tiers are met. Physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) are the lowest level. Feeding America reports that at the end of 2017, there were 13 million American children (one in six) living with food insecurity. Two of the consequences, as identified by the World Hunger Education Service, are “impaired physical and cognitive development.”
Maslow’s second tier consists of safety needs (protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc). Child Trends reports that in the United States in 2016 there were approximately 672,000 maltreated children, a rate of 9.1 per 1,000. “Maltreated” refers to neglect and abuse. If we include other factors, the numbers are much higher. Kids Count reports that 13% of American children live in communities with poverty rates of 30% and above. Among other patterns in high-poverty neighborhoods are higher rates of crime and violence, so even when children living in these areas have a safe home environment they may feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and at school.
I have only (briefly) discussed the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Levels three and four include love, belonging and esteem. Cognitive need only occurs at level five of the hierarchy. In other words, unless our students have their needs consistently met in those first four tiers, they are unable to care about knowledge and understanding. We have millions of children in the United States that are in this situation.
Our challenge is to take actions that ensure all students climb that hierarchy not only to tier five, but to the top. This Edutopia article provides some specific ways we can work towards that ideal.